Kat Sloma is blogging on thresholds today – http://www.kateyeview.com/ – and it’s an appropriate topic for me right now. Our lives are about to change and the change may be a big one or a small one – we hope to find out later today when Geoff gets news about his redundancy (or otherwise). For the last few months we’ve felt as if we’re both in limbo and in flux, and when you’re in the midst of change and uncertainty life can seem like a scary sort of place.
In this kind of situation the best we can do is to hold on to a belief that whatever the changes are they will ultimately be for the best, and to hope that the life change we’re approaching is going to be like moving through the photo above – passing the threshold into a sunlit, lush, and lovely new place.
Which would you choose?
In reality, it’s probably going to be more like the photo above – two or more thresholds and choices to make. But both of those thresholds look enticing, both would lead to adventures of different kinds, and both of them lead us out of the uncertain darkness into sunlight.
This uncertainty we’ve been living with for so long has made it hard to remember that this could be the start of something good. I’ve always loved entrances and half-open doors, fantasising about what might lie behind them. The reality might be banal or even unpleasant, but the excitement of discovery remains, and sometimes what you find is even better than you hoped for.
Getting down and dirty in a London photography workshop. The people who take the best pictures are usually the ones who're prepared to do whatever it takes!
It’s not the easiest of times right now. The Walker household income needs to be considerably bigger (we’re running at a loss each month) and I’m not contributing much at all to it – cue feelings of guilt, worry, and shame. I should be pushing forward with expanding my photography classes but I find myself strangely reluctant to do it. And the other day I began to wonder if trying to make money out of teaching photography is a good idea.
I love to teach. I like the interaction with people I haven’t met before, many of them interesting and fun. I like the look on their faces when they suddenly understand something they’ve struggled with up to now. I like the thank you emails I often get afterwards. I enjoy the process of constructing a course and the creativity needed to come up with interesting ways of getting something across that’s basically very dull. I love to learn new information, distil it, simplify it, and pass it on to others. I like to help. I like all of this.
What I don’t like is that, towards the end of last year I was doing so much teaching that I didn’t have time to think about my own photography and wasn’t taking many photos at all. I’ll admit that I’m a bit of a perfectionist and I do make work for myself that isn’t strictly necessary. I research everyone’s cameras before I do a class, because trying to figure out how eight different cameras do the same thing is both time-consuming and sometimes quite alarmingly worrying. I regularly tweak or re-write handouts because I think of a better way of doing them. I spend time looking for new materials that will better illustrate what I want to teach. And then there’s the printing out of booklets and handouts for everyone and the organising of folders and materials. And the admin, let’s not forget the admin. All this takes time, energy and effort but if I’m going to do it at all then I want to do it well.
I also don’t like the fact that I’m struggling to earn an income that will do more than feed the cats. It’s true that money’s never been much of a motivating factor for me, but the less you have of it the more important it becomes, and at the moment I’m pretty well stony broke.
Last year I did a lot of work for a friend who runs a photographic tour company in London. I devised a workshop, wrote a 24-page booklet to give to students who came on it, helped recruit new tutors and talked through the structure and format of the workshop with them, wrote another 12-page booklet for a different course and re-typed and reformatted a booklet that was written by someone else but needed to look better when printed out. I gave photographic advice, brainstormed ways of moving forward, spent time answering emails from students asking for advice, devised another course – which never ran – and taught a large number of workshops. What did I earn for all of this? Just over £1600. Not only is it nowhere near enough in terms of the hours I contributed, I then had to watch new tutors coming in and earning money using my course and my materials. I’m not usually a grudging sort of person, but I feel that stinging just a bit. I love to help out, my friend was extremely appreciative and I don’t regret doing all this as it’s been good experience, but there comes a time when you have to start looking after your own interests.
I thought the answer would be to expand my own workshops in my local area and it’s clear that there’s a much better return for effort if I do this. However, to earn anything like the amount I need I’d have to do huge amounts of marketing and promotion and I’m really not very good at that and, even worse, I don’t enjoy it at all. For me, the advantage of working with my London friend was that she would take care of the promotion side of things and I could get on with what I do best.
So I find myself procrastinating. There are many other workshops and courses I could put together, and I have more ideas than you can shake a stick at, but I have a deep feeling of reluctance inside to get moving on these. At the beginning of this year, after a spell when I was often working both days of each weekend in London, I contracted one virus after another. I’d no sooner get over one bout of flu or cold than I’d go down with the next. And when spring came and the threat of viruses diminished, I developed problems with my back and my knees. Illness, for me, is often a message that I’m not living my life in a way that’s good for me and this endless run of ill-health seems to be telling me that I’m off-track somewhere.
I’ve had a lot of time to think, and realised that when I do large amounts of teaching it takes my attention away from what I really want to do – work on my own personal photographic projects, study towards a photography degree, and write about photography. I do love to teach, but not at the expense of everything else. So recently I’ve been wondering if I should do something entirely different to earn money – a part-time job (assuming I can find one) that I don’t bring home with me and that leaves me time to play, to experiment, and to think. I’m wondering if trying to make your passion into a living is maybe a bad idea and that it’s better to separate the two. I’ve always thought you should follow your heart and your passion and earn money doing what you love to do, but did I get that wrong? Or is it that I simply need to find a new way of doing things?
While in London last weekend, I took this shot of a reflection in the Gherkin – or Swiss Re building as it should be called. I tried it in black and white as well; I don’t like it quite so much, but then I’ll nearly always go for colour first.
Photography has traditionally been a very male-dominated world, despite the fact that nowadays there are at least as many women who’re serious about taking photographs as there are men. It’s probably due to its association with technology – I suspect that the reason my beginners workshops usually have significantly more women than men in them is because of the title: Digital Photography for the Technically Challenged.
Anyway, you’ll be relieved to know that this is not going to be a polemic on gender politics. It’s just that one of the manifestations of the male bias in photography is that when it comes to photographic equipment and accessories, they’re designed with men in mind. For instance, if you want to buy a camera bag or strap, you can have any colour of black you like – or you might just find brown, khaki, or navy if you’re really lucky. Good, plain masculine colours.
Now I’ve always believed that even utilitarian things should be pleasurable to look at and add something to the aesthetics of the world and, really, I’d just like to get a pretty strap for my camera, or a brightly coloured camera bag – I don’t want girly pink, just something bright and cheerful. So I’ve been searching the web to see what’s available and this is what I’ve come up with. Unfortunately, nearly all these suppliers are in the US, although they’ll ship to the UK.
A quick search on Etsy brought up loads of fun, pretty, camera straps at fairly reasonable prices – just be aware that some of them are camera strap covers rather than actual straps. Sassystrap have a particularly good selection of proper straps and do some fantastic designs; here’s just a sample:
This one's called Yellow Daisy and is a little more feminine
If you want to go really girly, you can get one with ruffles on it
Phatstraps do a good variety of straps, some of which are rugged enough not to embarrass the most macho man, while also being far more interesting than black webbing. As this is for the girls, I’m not going to show the more masculine ones here, but I like these two:
And finally, if you’re a voluptuous sort of woman you’re probably aware that, worn across the body, normal camera straps are less than comfortable. Someone has finally come up with a solution, although sadly only in black and at an extortionate price – it’s a specially designed camera strap made to fit a woman’s shape. UK readers can find it at Picstop, but just do a Google search for Black Rapid RS-W1 Women’s Camera Strap and you’ll be able to find a stockist wherever you are.
Part Two – Camera Bags – coming soon
I was going to look at camera bags as well, but now I’m thinking that would be better left for another post. For the moment, is there anyone out there in the UK who’d like to design and sew some fun camera straps? I’m convinced there’s a gap in the market.
I was in the City of London at the weekend teaching a beginner’s photography workshop. Just as we got to the main road, a posse of bikers turned up, parked their large shiny motorbikes, got off, and mounted a row of Boris’s bicycles. (For non-UK readers, Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, set up a scheme that enables anyone to pick up and borrow a bicycle for a small fee from the many banks of them distributed all over London)
We were on the other side of the road and a central railing prevented us from crossing for some way each side, so I climbed up onto a large block of stone and managed to get this photo.
I have no idea what they were doing – they were in high good spirits, waving at traffic going by, cars were honking their horns at them, and passing photographers were risking their lives in the road taking pictures. It looked like a publicity stunt, but there didn’t seem to be any publicity going on. Whatever it was, it added a bit of fun to our day.
Danny Gregory, in his book The Creative Licence, says that if you want know how successful you are creatively, don’t look at how much money you earn, or what people say about your work. Instead, ask yourself these four questions:
Did you express yourself?
Did you have fun?
Did you learn something?
Did you see?
He’s talking about drawing, but it applies equally well to photography. Sometimes we forget that art is not just about the finished product – in fact, you’re still engaged in making art even if it all goes wrong and there is no finished product. While it’s good to see a result for your efforts, the process of doing it is at least equally important – it’s the act of creation that counts. If we only engaged in art in order to produce a product, then art would turn into a job. And while it might be a very enjoyable job, it probably wouldn’t satisfy that thing in you that got you interested in the first place.
Did you express yourself?
Does your photograph express what you felt when you took it? Does it bring out similar emotions in the viewer as it did in you when you took it? Does it show the scene/event in the way that you saw it? Does it say what you want it to say? If it does, then reward yourself with chocolate – you’ve done well.
The photograph at the top is far from perfect, but for me it expresses the feeling I wanted to capture of walking home through town on a wet winter’s night.
We went kite flying, had a lot of fun, and I got this!
Did you have fun?
This is the question that most often gets neglected. Remind yourself why you took up photography – I’ll bet it was because you enjoyed it, it was a lot of fun. The trouble is, once you get serious about doing something the fun often starts leaking out of it. It doesn’t have to, but we get all adult about it and start beating ourselves up when it doesn’t work out the way we’d hoped. Watch a young child in the act of creating – they don’t worry about the end product, they just have fun doing it. And if a child didn’t have fun painting or drawing or making something out of matchsticks, then s/he wouldn’t do it. Remember that; fun is important
And yes, I know there are times when it’s not fun but you have to persevere anyway because you’re not a child anymore and the end result is worth the angst. Nobody’s saying it’s going to be fun all the time – just make sure it’s fun at least some of the time. OK?
Did you learn something?
If you didn’t manage to express yourself effectively, and you didn’t even have fun doing it, then maybe at least you learned something. Maybe you made what looked like a mistake but actually resulted in a cool new effect. Maybe you just made a lot of mistakes – but now you know what not to do next time, don’t you? Don’t be too quick to delete your mistakes either; I’ve had bad shooting days where I haven’t liked anything I’ve taken, but when I’ve revisited later I can see that there are some fine shots there that I didn’t notice because of my negative mood.
Before I took up photography, I never would have looked closely enough to notice the reflection in this orb.
Did you see?
Did you begin to see things in a new way? Photography is a fantastic pursuit for getting you to look at things differently and to see interesting things where once you thought it was all terribly boring. If you saw something in a different way, even if you didn’t manage to capture it in your camera, then you’ve gained something very valuable from the experience. If all that photography ever did for you was to make you really see the world, it would be worth it for that alone.
Sometimes it happens that we can say a big ‘yes’ to all of these questions: those are the best of days. Sometimes we can only say ‘yes’ to two or three of them – that’s good too. Even if we only say ‘yes’ to one of them, we can count that as a success. So stop criticising the photographs you end up with, and start asking yourself these questions instead – they’re a better measure of true success.
Can you think of any other questions it would be good to ask yourself?
With the unseasonably hot weather we’ve had this year all the spring flowers and blossom seem to have come out at once and I feel as if I’m being pulled in all directions trying not to miss any of it. The bluebells were out a good couple of weeks earlier than usual and although yet again I’d left it a bit late (I always seem to be scrambling at the last moment), I wasn’t going to give in without trying.
I know of a wood that’s carpeted with bluebells – a lovely place – and headed there last Sunday. The bluebells were still blue, but that’s about all you could say for them; if you looked closely they were quite wizened and another day or two of warm weather and they’d be bluebells no more. So my first thought was to avoid any close-ups that would reveal that they were on the way out and try to capture the haze of blue that was still there. (The creative photographer always works with what they’ve got!)
I took a few shots this way and thought I had one or two that worked but nothing exciting. Then I had another idea: I thought I’d play around with some abstract shots. By setting a slow shutter speed and moving the camera I aimed to get a soft, painterly effect. It’s not a new idea, but I’ve only tried it once before and I like the way it looks. I rather like the green haze that’s appeared in the shot below, and the way it almost seems like a double exposure. But you’ll notice it doesn’t have any bluebells in it!
While the shot above had something about it, the next shot wasn’t nearly so successful (although it does contain bluebells). I’d be the first to admit that it just looks too blurred to work properly – it makes my eyes go very peculiar just looking at it and is a good example of Getting it Badly Wrong. It shows that you need something for your eye to fix and focus on even where the overall effect is very soft. The colours are nice, though.
How NOT to do it!
Because I liked the way the colours had come out in this (if nothing else), I had another idea.
Sometimes when you finally see your photos on the computer screen you get a real thrill about how well they’ve turned out; this wasn’t one of those times. Although the straight bluebell shots were OK at first glance, they showed a little bit of camera shake when viewed at full size. This was probably caused by my being slightly out of breath when I took them (there was a steep climb up a hill involved) and then not using a tripod.
There are two schools of thought here. The first says that trying to rescue a bad picture is very definitely not how you’re supposed to do things. The serious photographer would delete the shots and try again next year. It’s absolutely the right attitude if you’re trying to sell your shots or use them commercially and I’d be the first to agree. But the other point of view says, if you’re not going to be asking for money for them, why not have some fun playing with them and see what you can salvage out of the whole sorry mess? So that’s where I decided to go.
I took one of the straight shots and applied the Orton technique to it. For those who haven’t heard of this, it’s a process where you sandwich together a sharp version and a blurred version of the same image, and it gives a soft effect that also brings out the colours. Not only would it cover up the camera shake issue, it would disguise the less-than-juicy nature of the bluebells and make them look like the blue cloud they ought to resemble. The result is at the top of this post and I think it works pretty well.
To let you decide for yourself, I’ve put the straight version and the Ortonised version together for comparison. You can see in the straight version on the left that the bluebells are looking a bit thin, and the one on the right makes them look a lot richer and thicker on the ground.
In many ways this was a bad day’s shooting. But I learned from it – I tried out a new camera technique and I had some fun with post-processing. And next year I won’t leave it so late and I’ll catch my breath again before I start shooting.
Most cameras shoot in rectangles – a common one is 3:2, which means your photo (whatever its actual dimensions) will measure three units across by two units high. For example, your prints will be 6 inches by 4 inches, or 9 inches by 6 inches or any size that has the 3:2 ratio. The trouble with this is that we can get locked into this one way of composing and stagnate there. Shooting to a different ratio forces you to compose your images differently and helps stretch your ‘seeing’ muscles.
There are a lot of different aspect ratio options you can go for, but for the moment I want to suggest that you start by shooting square. Why square? Well, it’s not something we come across that often and therefore it stands out – it’s a little unusual and we’re not used to seeing potential pictures in that shape. Most photos that you see in newspapers, magazines, adverts, and so on are rectangular, although one obvious exception to this is CD covers.
The square has some interesting properties. It’s a very stable shape, and it takes away the usual dilemma of choosing between portrait and landscape format – a square is a square, whichever way up you put it. Some subjects very obviously suit this format – such as flowers – and while placing your subject bang in the centre is usually a no-no, with square format it often works well.
At the same time, it can work equally well to have your subject off to the side.
You can still use the Rule of Thirds for effective composition.
Sometimes the advantage of a square is that it allows you to leave out the ‘extra’ bits that would spoil your composition. I cropped the next photo for this reason – the square contained exactly what I wanted to capture and no more.
Diagonal lines often work well within the square and set up a pleasant tension between the stability of the square and the movement and dynamism of the diagonal.
Symmetry also works well, as the square shape itself is symmetrical and so sets up a kind of ‘echo’ of the composition.
How to set your camera up to shoot square
If you’re very lucky, your camera might just have an option that lets you do this. I’ve only ever seen this in compact cameras, but if you check your manual (under aspect ratio) you can find out if yours does it, and if it does then you’re off and away.
Traditionally, square format photography came from medium format cameras using 120mm film made by manufacturers like Hasselblad and Rolleiflex. These are very expensive and beyond the price range of most enthusiasts. But….if you like shooting in film, and enjoy the toy camera effect, then Holgas, Lomos, and Dianas all use 120mm, produce square prints and are very affordable. Some camera phone apps are in square format too, and prints from Polaroid cameras are, of course, square-shaped.
Most cameras don’t have a square format option, however, so let’s assume your camera doesn’t either. You have two choices. The first is that you just have to imagine you’ve got a square shape in your viewfinder instead of what’s actually there. This is a bit difficult at first, but can be done with practice. If you do find it difficult to ‘see’ in squares, then a good tip is to cut a square in a piece of black card. Hold it in front of you, look through it, and move it around till you see a good composition.
The second option is much easier: if you have Live View, put some tape on your screen so that the only bit you see is square shaped. Then you just compose your picture using the part of the screen you can see. Later on, of course, when you upload it to your computer, you’ll have to crop it square. (And if you have a DSLR and don’t like composing using Live View, just use it to identify possible compositions and then take your picture using the viewfinder as normal).
In the picture below I’ve used light-coloured masking tape so you can see clearly what I’ve done, but black tape or a colour that blends with your camera is a lot less distracting. If you’ve used light-coloured tape and it bothers you that you can see through it a little, you can get round this by placing a piece of dark card behind the tape (thanks to Kat for this tip).
Once you’ve taken your photo, you’ll have to crop it square. If you use Photoshop or Photoshop Elements, set the cropping tool to No Restriction, and hold down the Shift key as you use the mouse to crop. This will keep your crop beautifully square-shaped. Alternatively, if you know what size you want your final print to be, then you can just enter the dimensions and resolution in the cropping toolbar.
In my recent post on the Turner Centre you can see one example of how cropping to a square can change the whole way a photo looks.
Printing square photos can cause some problems for you if you have your photos commercially printed rather than print them yourself. In the UK, Photobox offer a couple of sizes of square crops: 5 x 5 and 8 x 8. This is a bit limiting and if these sizes don’t suit you, then DS Colour Labs offer a better variety of sizes although their prints are a bit more expensive. If you’re in the US try Mpix, who offer a wide range of square print sizes. And of course you could just get them printed out on a larger size print and then cut off the excess.
Finding square frames shouldn’t pose too many problems as they’re fashionable at the moment. For anyone living in the UK and the rest of Europe, Ikea always have a good selection.
For lots of ideas about using a square shape for your photography, try the Flickr group B Square, or have a look here.
Michael Kenna takes beautiful, minimalist landscapes using square format.
Jaqueline Walters, on Flickr, has some great black and white and Holga square images.
Kawauchi Rinko is known for her rather dreamy, square format images; the link will take you to a selection of her images and an interview, but do a Google Image search to see more.
For an interesting, if slightly awkward to grasp, method of composing with square images, see Diagonal Method.
Kat Sloma also has an interesting post on taking square format photos that goes into lots of detail about how best to compose for this shape.
I came across the work of photographer Nina Katchadourian a while ago, and was really taken by two of her projects: in the first, she mended spider’s webs with red thread and the in the second, she patched cracks in mushrooms with bicycle repair kits.
The spiders would often react to the repair by pulling out the red threads, leaving a pile of them on the ground below. You can imagine them being disgusted at the standard of workmanship and outraged at the use of red thread!
There’s something very playful and whimsical about this that I find enchanting, but it does pose some more serious questions about our interactions with nature. Should we intervene? Katchadourian says that she often destroyed the web further in her efforts to do the repair. Sometimes we just blunder in and make things worse.
It reminds me of the story of a man who saw a butterfly struggling to emerge from its cocoon and ‘helped’ it by pulling the cocoon apart. What he didn’t realise was that the struggle to emerge was designed to force fluid from the butterfly’s body into its wings and that, without this struggle, the butterfly’s wings would never form enough to fly.
Putting all that aside, I do think there’s a wonderful innocence in the notion of repairing webs and mushrooms that takes us back in time to childhood when magic was around every corner and everything was possible. It’s refreshing to come across work that just has to make you smile.
Photo challenge: what could you do to ‘repair’ nature and then photograph it?
I never intended to take up photography at all. I came to it via an Access to Art & Design course that I took at my local college, because what I really wanted to do (I thought!) was paint and draw.
One of the first exercises on the course was to choose a partner and then each of us had to draw the other person in our sketchbook. My drawing was the one you see on the left and if it hadn’t already been in my sketchbook, it would have found itself in the bin in short order. It’s terrible! My only consolation was that the drawing Kevin – my victim – did of me was probably even worse.
But…..it was only about two weeks later that I produced the self-portrait on the right. It doesn’t look like me, but it does look like a real face, and it’s amazing what an improvement drawing all day for a couple of days a week has made. In Kevin’s portrait there’s no shading, no real observation of what his face actually looked like – I didn’t draw what my eyes were seeing, I drew what I thought was there.
Naming stops us seeing
Frederick Franck, in his book The Zen of Seeing, says that the minute we label something we stop seeing it properly. So I looked at Kevin and saw two eyes, a nose, a mouth, some hair, etc. You can see I made some attempt to observe the shape of his face and that’s probably because you can’t pin a label on that so easily. In contrast, when I did the self-portrait I was closely observing things like the folds round my eyes, the shape of my mouth, the way my hair curled, and so on. I didn’t think ‘this is an eye’ while drawing my eye, I simply observed the shapes and the tones that were there without naming them. And instead of ending up with Kevin’s flat, white face, I’ve seen where the shadows and highlights lie, drawn them in, and subsequently my face has volume and shape.
So what does this have to do with photography?
To be a good photographer you have to learn to look at the world differently, and learning to draw is a very good way of changing how you look at things. You begin to notice patterns of light and shade, interesting little shapes, and the lines and curves that make up your subject. Even something boring becomes interesting when you try to draw it.
For instance, maybe you think the view from your window is really dull. And if you look at it and just see houses, cars, washing lines, and so on, it will be. If you stop seeing it in terms of these things and start noticing the fabulously clashing colours of the clothes on the washing line, or the soft, golden light hitting just one window of the house opposite, or the curved lines that form the shapes of the cars, or how no two leaves on the tree in your garden are exactly the same shape, then a whole new world will open up to you. Nothing will ever look dull and boring again once you learn how to really look at it, and you’ll be able to find a picture anywhere.
You don’t need to be good at drawing for this to work, although you will become good at it naturally when you start really ‘seeing’ the world. It’s not the end result – the drawing – that’s important; it’s the process you go through to arrive at it. It trains you to look carefully and closely at the world around you. And if you do this then you can’t help but become a better photographer.
I hope I might have convinced you to give it a go. Apart from anything else, it’s a lot of fun.
Books to help you learn to draw
I tend to avoid the kind of learn-to-draw book that teaches in a very technical way. I’m not a very technical person and I find it off-putting and boring. I like the kind that gets you enthused and inspired, or helps you use a more right-brained approach to drawing. Here are some I can totally recommend:
This is a classic, and I never thought I could draw at all until I tried the exercises in this book. I was astounded at the difference these made in just one day of drawing. If you only buy one book, make it this one.
This is a charming – and free – downloadable ebook, written by a man who found drawing helped him deal with the death of his mother and a chronic illness.
There are loads more books out there but I’m not going to overload you. I hope you’ll think about picking up a pencil and doing some drawing – I guarantee it will change the way you see things forever.